He walks slightly hunched over, bent forward at the waist, perhaps not unexpected for a man of 87. Yet despite the obvious frailties of age, he still presents an imposing figure, tall and, though well past his playing days, displaying a naturally athletic frame.

His voice is strong, undiminished, projecting the authority that set him apart as a commanding leader in both his playing and coaching career. His mind — and, in particular, his wit — are still sharp, exhibiting a renowned dry sense of humor that continues to color his comments and retorts, charming his audience.

Bud Grant still draws a crowd. The featured speaker at a breakfast meeting of a business-networking club, there were more than 100 people in the room – unusually high attendance for the event. The club president introduced Grant, former coach of the National Football League (NFL) Minnesota Vikings. The coach rose from his seat and walked deliberately to the lectern.

The venue was a country club in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. A member of the club had invited me to attend as his guest. When he extended the invitation, he made a point of noting that Bud Grant would be speaking. That held little interest for me; in fact, I almost declined. A retired NFL coach? Please, not another event where a long-retired coach tells stories, spouts sporting clichés and fills the time with platitudes. “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” “It’s never over ‘til it’s over.” I thought: I’ve heard it all before.

Only stars

But not wanting to appear rude or ungrateful, I accepted, thinking to myself, Why not, let’s network with some new people. As I learned, the event would have almost nothing to do with sports. What “Coach Bud” shared that morning was not only a surprise – it revealed a depth of feeling that I’d never before heard from a sports figure.

“I’m sure you all have things you want to know about pro football,” he told the crowd, many of them his contemporaries, an audience of rapt, almost entirely male football fans. “We’ll have plenty of time to get into that in the question-and-answer session.”

Instead, he said he wanted to talk about something else.

“I know a lot of fans look up to football players and other athletes as heroes,” he said. “But they’re not heroes. They’re only stars. There aren’t heroes in pro football. Let me tell you about some guys I knew who really were heroes.”

Grant talked about growing up in Superior, Wis., and having many friends whose families worked in mining, lumber and other area industries. In the fall of 1941, he entered high school. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December of that year, he was too young to enlist. Many of his friends were, like he, star athletes. As they had graduated or would soon finish high school, they were eligible to join up the military. Just 18 or 19 years old, but eager to serve the war effort.

One of them told Grant that he’d soon be leaving. “He told me he was joining the Marines,” Grant said. Like many other servicemen, he came home once on leave and told Grant that he would be shipping out to the South Pacific. “We talked a lot, and he asked me if I would write to him. Yeah, in those days, guys wrote to other guys.”

Grant and the young Marine kept up a correspondence. “Then came word that he’d been in a battle in — now, what was the name of that island again?” Grant paused, struggling briefly, trying to remember the name.

“Oh yeah, Tarawa,” he said, and in the hushed room there were nods and murmurs of men who knew full well what that hell meant for young American soldiers. “He didn’t make it.”

An appreciation

Grant then told stories about others who left Superior to serve:

  • The gunner on a “Flying Fortress” who flew many bombing missions over Germany. Not long before the eventual end of the war, the plane was shot down, the entire crew lost.
  • The sailor who served on a submarine. “I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in a submarine,” Grant recalled. Eventually, he would encounter in an engagement with Japanese ships, who sank the sub. “My friend and his fellow sailors are at the bottom of the ocean, not far from Japan.”
  • And the airman who, after many successful sorties, participated in one more mission: the test-flight of a newly developed jet airplane.

“He’d already flown many missions,,” Grant said, his voice beginning to crack, his tone almost plaintive. “His service was completed. He could have just come home. But, instead, he volunteered, because he decided it was  his duty.

“But during the flight the plane exploded, and he was lost,” Grant said, his eyes welling with tears, stopping to pause amid the silence of the room.

Grant would go on to join the service in 1945, as the war was ending, but serving his country nonetheless. Returning from the army, he would star in both basketball and football at the University of Minnesota, and later coaching – as head coach, first, in Canada, then later in the NFL.

Following his talk, Grant took questions from the floor – all of them about football. I don’t remember any of them.

It’s said that as we grow old and enter our “twilight” years, we gain a true appreciation for what’s truly important in life. That morning, it was clear that Bud Grant had gained that appreciation many years before.

“Athletes are only stars: they’re not heroes,” he repeated. “Those young men I knew many years ago in Superior, Wisconsin – those were the real heroes.”



A matter of your biology, values and tribe

We view ourselves as rational, thinking beings. We consider facts, evidence and argument, weigh the pros and cons, and make informed, reasonable judgments.

At least that’s what we think we do. If it were true, why do topics that supposedly can be proven or disproven by science – for example, whether to add fluoride to our water supply to protect our teeth, or whether to immunize our children – divide communities?

And those are the easy issues,compared with the debates surrounding climate change, evolution or whether homosexuality is innate or is a choice.

Are people uninformed? Have scientists and other sources of knowledge and authority lost their credibility? Are religious values trumping scientific findings?

Or, is something more complicated going on?

While disagreements over these and other topics often seem irreconcilable, it turns out that recent
research in neuroscience, social science and other fields offers new insights on how we process information and form our beliefs and judgments. Anyone involved in communications, marketing, or other activities designed to inform or persuade, if they are to understand their audiences, must take note of these findings and their implications.

A rush of blood to the forehead

An Associated Press-GfK poll designed to be representative of the U.S. population and released in March illustrated the current level of public acceptance of scientific assertions. About four in 10 Americans are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming as a result of human-caused heat-trapping gases; that earth is 4.5 billion years old; or that life on earth evolved through a process of natural selection. Results also indicated that 51 percent of Americans question the Big Bang theory.

Some of the nation’s top scientists reacted to the survey’s results with dismay or even dismissal. The chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that, when values and beliefs conflict with science, “most often values and belief trump science.” The winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine added, “Science ignorance is pervasive in our society.”

Such comments, however, are not only dismissive but, in light of recent research, an oversimplification. In The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” (2011) reporter Chris Mooney, who has written extensively on how the public views such issues, wrote that modern neuroscience has shown that reason is actually suffused with emotion. Positive or negative feelings about people, things and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, “in a matter of milliseconds.” He writes that evolution, in giving us basic survival skills, has trained us to react quickly to stimuli in the environment. “We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself,” Mooney notes.

Neuroscience was also the basis for research conducted in 2003 by University of Maryland psychologist Kevin Dunbar and discussed in the New Yorker in 2006. Dunbar showed videos – first, to non-physics majors, and then to physics majors – based on the experiment conducted by Galileo in which objects of two different weights were dropped from the same height.

The conventional wisdom was that the heavier object would fall at a faster speed; that was portrayed in one video, which was selected as the correct answer by the non-physics majors. The actual experiment, of course, demonstrated that the two objects fell at the same speed, portrayed in a second video. When told that video was the correct one, the non-physics majors experienced a brain activation consisting of a squirt of blood to a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain. Neuroscientists have long known of this response when a person sees something that seems wrong, even if it’s right.

The more interesting finding came when Dunbar showed the videos to physics majors, who knew the right answer. Even so, when they selected the correct video, blood flow increased to their brains’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. This biological activity is important in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of thoughts that aren’t useful. In other words, Dunbar explained, even though they knew the right answer, the physics majors’ brains had to do additional work, suppressing intuition. In being presented information that challenges innate beliefs, however, many don’t emulate the physics majors and undertake that extra mental labor.

Not scientists, but lawyers

Mooney also cites Stony Brook University political scientist Charles Taber, whose research indicated that when a person hears about a scientific discovery that challenges a long-held belief, a subconscious negative response to the information guides the types of information and memories formed in the conscious mind. The person, Taber said, naturally retrieves thoughts that are consistent with previous beliefs, so that they can build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.

As a result, Mooney observes, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. He quotes an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.”

Mooney also has documented the work of Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who has shown that the deep-seated views of people about morality and about the way society should be ordered are strong predictors of who they consider to be legitimate scientific experts – and, as a result, where they consider “scientific consensus” to lie on contested issues.

In his research, Kahan classifies individuals as either “individualists” or “communitarians,” and as either “hierarchical” or “egalitarian” in outlook. “Somewhat oversimplifying,” Mooney writes, “think of hierarchical individualists as conservative Republicans and egalitarian communitarians as liberal democrats.”

An example from Kahan’s research: “A friend tells you that he or she is planning to read a book about an issue (e.g., climate change) but would like an opinion on whether the author seems like a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert.” The subject was then shown a fake resume of the expert, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has earned a Ph.D. in the pertinent field from one elite university who was now on the faculty of another.

The subject was then shown an excerpt of a book by the “expert,” in which the scientist stated that global warming is real and human caused. The result: only 23 percent of hierarchical individualists agreed the person was a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert,” while 88 percent of egalitarian communitarians did. Similar splits were seen in such issues as whether nuclear waste could be safely stored underground and whether letting people carry guns deters crime.

The bottom line for Kahan: people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views. “And that,” Mooney reports, “undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts – they may hold their views more tenaciously than ever.”

Ezra Klein, former Washington Post blogger and now editor of the “explanatory journalism” site Vox.com, also interviewed Kahan, for a recent post, How Politics Makes Us Stupid” (April 6, 2014).

Ezra Klein

Describing Kahan’s social science experiments, Klein writes that they’re “designed to test people’s abilities to consider the evidence arrayed before them. It forces subjects to suppress their impulse to go with what looks right and instead do the difficult mental work of figuring out what is right. In Kahan’s sample, most people failed.” In other words, they didn’t allow the necessary the blood flow to the fronts of their brains.

Klein notes that Kahan’s hypothesis is not that people are held back by a lack of knowledge, but that there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as to win the argument. Certainly, Klein quotes Kahan, most of the time people are “perfectly capable” of being convinced by the best evidence; for example, on whether antibiotics work, whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs one’s ability to drive.

“But our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe,” Klein writes. “Individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”

The continuing question: How to persuade?

How, then, to overcome our internal biology and tribal allegiances to sort out fact from fiction or distortion and address the long-term challenges of society, and civilization? Or, as Mooney asks, “What can be done to counteract human nature itself?”

He answers that question by advising, “If you want someone to accept new evidence make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.” He posits, for example, that conservatives might be more likely to be concerned about climate change if that message comes from a business or religious leader, “who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue.”

Kahan, on the other hand, places more responsibility for communication on these issues with the scientific community. According to Klein, he would like to see researchers develop a more “evidence-based models” of how people often treat questions of science as questions of identity. By doing so, Kahan says, scientists could craft a communications strategy that would avoid biases of their audience.

Still, as divisions continue over these issues, science alone will not provide all the answers. “There’s something charming and roguish about some Americans’ antipathy to authority and refusal to defer to experts,” wrote Bloomberg reporter Christopher Flavelle in March. “But that means the biggest challenge associated with climate change my not be technological, economic or political, but cultural. That’s a puzzle even the smartest scientists haven’t been able to crack.’

Whether in forming political consensus, persuading customers to select a product or gaining support for a public initiative, communicators cannot be satisfied simply to present facts, information and research. We need to understand our audiences’ values and the “tribes” that influence their behavior. That, in and of itself, is nothing new, but these and other studies offer new insights on how to navigate those factors in making new connections.

Data visualization: not just for experts anymore

Depending on how you look at it, “Big Data” is either a blessing or a curse. Some organizations see it as a daunting challenge to their ability to analyze and understand it. Others see it as key to new insights, cures, solutions and advances.

But that’s the crux of Big Data, isn’t it? No, not whether you view it negatively or positively, but literally how you look at it. Big Data is meaningless unless it can be analyzed and interpreted. For management to do that, they need to be able to easily interpret it and draw conclusions from it.

Historical stock price data plotted as 3-D graphs

The key to being able to do that is data visualization, and data visualization is becoming ever more crucial in enabling senior managers in many fields – including finance, online engagement, climate, energy, manufacturing and agriculture – to evaluate Big Data without special technological expertise or assistance.

In a TDWI Research report last fall, David Stodder called data visualization “one of the great innovations of our time.” “Quantitative communication through graphical representation of data and analytical concepts is essential to surviving amid the deluge of data flowing through our world,” he wrote. He added that data visualization sits at the confluence of such factors as technology, the study of human perception and graphical interfaces, and “can contribute significantly to the fruitful interpretation and sharing of insights.”

As David Brooks wrote in the February 4 New York Times, “Technology has rewarded graphic artists who visualize data.”

A graphic visualization of global environment indicators

Perhaps the most important developments in data visualization today are the strides being made in making it easily understood and interpreted by a lay audience – in other words, not requiring technical expertise or an analytical background to interpret and understand.

“The best visualizations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting, and allow you to act on it,” commented Amanda Cox, the Times graphics editor, in the Harvard Business Review last March. In their innovative use of graphic, statistical and analytical tools, Cox and her colleagues have made the Times a leader in data visualization.

That work, she said, has provided her team with this insight: “When I first started, I thought design was ten minutes to ‘make it [the technical analysis] cute’ at the end that I could talk someone into doing for me. Now I know that design thinking needs to be involved from conception.”

Data visualization from Google Earth

Likewise, by Jim Strikeleather, executive strategist, Innovation for Dell Services, emphasized the importance of the end-user in a Harvard Business Review blog post last April. Data visualization, he said, must be developed with an understanding of the audience; it must set up a clear framework; and it must tell a story.

Many examples of data visualization are available at the federal website www.data.gov. To view an especially effective example – providing a dynamic look at climate data and trends – view the visuals available at http://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/view.

This post originally appeared in CapsuleScape, the blog of Capsule Design in Minneapolis.

Public relations for businesses: a matter of perspective

Suggest to an owner of a small or mid-sized business that he or she can use public relations as a strategy to support business growth, and the businessperson is likely to demur. “What do I know about getting covered by the news media?” or the owner might say: “I don’t have a clue about how to use social media like Facebook for my business.”

The responses are common, but they often reflect many missed opportunities. That’s because they reflect knowledge only of public relations tactics – certainly, tactics that can be effective tools in a building a reputation for businesses or organizations. But that’s the point: they’re just tools. Understanding how public relations can help your enterprise means, first, understanding how public relations is a matter of perspective.

The beginning of a significant new field

Let’s start at the beginning. In my first post on this blog, I referred to Edward Bernays, who was

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

listed by Life magazine among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. How was he influential? It started with his relatives.

Bernays was a double nephew of Sigmund Freud. His mother was Freud’s older sister, Anna, and Bernays’ father was the brother of Freud’s wife. Bernays, in fact, was born in Vienna, although his family moved to New York in 1892, when he was just a year old.

Sigmund Freud

After graduating from Yale in 1912, and unsure about what he would do with his life, Bernays traveled to Vienna to spend a few months with “Uncle Siggy.” He gained a firsthand understanding of the work of his uncle, and the principles of the emerging field of psychology. He was confident that the principles of psychology could be applied to many different fields – government, politics, even business.

As World War I approached, Bernays joined others in government in propaganda work to raise support for the United States entry into the war.

After the war, Bernays embarked on his own consulting practice. Since the field was entering – creating, in fact — didn’t have a name, he invented one. In his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, he coined the term “public relations.”  In the years that followed, he advised many famous public figures, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a succession of U.S. presidents.

Creating a new opportunity

What is the lesson for today’s business owners? I believe it’s epitomized in one account of how Bernays put his principles into practice. It came near the close of World War II. Although the war had not yet concluded, Americans were beginning to look forward to the day when U.S. soldiers would return home.

Representatives of one of Bernays’ clients, a national booksellers’ association, came to him and said, “Mr. Bernays, soon, millions of Americans will be coming home from the war. We want them to buy books. Is there a way, they asked, that you can help us?” Bernays told them that he would think about it.

Bernays knew that, with so many soldiers returning to the United States, they would be starting families and, eventually, looking for homes.  So, with the booksellers in mind, he approached an association of homebuilders. He talked with them about an anticipated increase in home building, and discussed possible ideas they could make new homes attractive to potential buyers. And one of his suggestions for making home interiors attractive to young families, with a touch of sophistication, was to include built-in bookshelves.

The feature did prove attractive to new homebuyers, and once they purchased their homes, they filled those shelves with lots of new books.

The lesson for business owners isn’t hard to see. In fact, many small businesses and entrepreneurs already follow Bernays’ thinking.

Right in your neighborhood

There’s a small hardware store in my neighborhood where the owner hires students from a nearby private high school to help out in the afternoons, after school. He focuses solely on those students in seeking part-time help for the store. The students greet every customer who comes into the store, asking what the customer is looking for and helping to find the product. The store’s owner doesn’t publicize or advertise this, and he’s been doing it for years.

Other than paying the students for their part-time work, he doesn’t spend a dime – but you can be sure that the parents of those students are not only grateful for the jobs, but if they ever need something from the hardware store they know the first place they’ll stop.

Here’s another example: A local dentist who practices in my area takes a couple of weeks annually to volunteer his services at a mission in Latin America. He provides much-needed dental care to very poor children. Until his first visit, many had never seen a dentist.

When he returns home, he posts pictures of his latest mission trip in his lobby. The display isn’t intrusive, nor does it ask for any donations for the mission. It just offers some information on his volunteer work. Yet patients cannot help but see the photos, and are likely to conclude – and tell their friends – that he’s a caring, committed professional who serves his community, both locally and globally.

The next, final example has not been utilized, but only proposed. But again I believe it illustrates the type of thinking involved in understanding and utilizing public relations.

A few months ago I met a young inventor. He had a pet dog; when a new roommate came to live with him, however, they found that the roommate was allergic to dog hair. Rather than having to choose between the dog and the roommate, the inventor put his knowledge to work and developed a product that reduced the level of dog hair in their house, relieving the roommate’s discomfort.

I asked the inventor how he planned to market the product. He listed some traditional advertising and marketing tactics. For example, it likely would be sold in pet supply stores. “Pet supply stores?” I asked. “Those are for people who already have dogs. It would seem you need to reach those who can’t have dogs because of their allergies”

I suggested he look into providing information on the product directly to allergists, or perhaps in journals read by allergists or through allergists’ conferences. Once they were familiar with the product, I said, if they treated children who couldn’t own dogs because of allergies, the doctors could provide information on the product to the parents. What a great story could be told, I said, if his product made it possible for a child, for the first time, to experience the love and companionship of a dog.

Just change your thinking

As these stories illustrate, public relations can benefit a small business, a health care professional or an individual inventor and entrepreneur. The purpose is to build a trusted reputation among influencers and key audiences. Developing a strong and positive reputation can lead to heightened attention, favorable public opinion and new customers.

A lot of people — especially those who are hiring someone to do their public relations for the first time — think that our business is just about positive press. Make no mistake: sometimes media relations (a classic public relations tactic) are necessary, and, increasingly, utilizing social media or other tactics is necessary.

But, first and foremost, public relations is about the ability to understand the wants, needs, desires and fears of others, and to take authentic action to help the client – in many cases, the business owner — overcome a challenge or take advantage of an opportunity. Sometimes that involves media relations, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s ultimately about building and maintaining trust.

Public relations, therefore doesn’t require a businessperson to think like a reporter, or a news commentator, or like someone who has a large following on social media.

It just requires you to think in a new and different way: to think like a psychologist.

The role of good judgment: You be the judge

Check out job descriptions for management-level positions at most any company and they’re likely to have some common denominators. At the top will be requirements for specific experience and qualifications in the job’s given role — whether corporate communications, marketing, computer science, finance, business administration or other areas. Next, the description usually will state the desired experience or knowledge in a company’s particular industry.

Beyond the specific technical expertise required for a position, organizations will also stipulate that candidates for management-level roles possess certain more subjective qualities.  These are likely to include leadership, management, team building and, in most cases, “judgment.”

But what, exactly, is judgment? Webster’s defines it as the “power of comparing and deciding; understanding; good sense.”

Management gurus Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis explored it in depth in their 2007 book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. They analyzed cases involving several prominent CEOs – including Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Jim McNerney of Boeing and A.G. Laffley of Procter and Gamble – and called judgment the “essence of leadership.” They evaluated several cases to show that, although good judgment isn’t something we’re born with, it can be learned.

Their oft-quoted bottom line: “With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters.”

Judgment calls that earned the headlines

Which, perhaps, is why it’s not judgment, but the lack of it, that tends to attract the most attention. Consider, for example, three recent examples:

  • In December, Jennifer Sacco, Corporate Communications Director for New York-based IAC, which operates the Daily Beast, Match.com and other web sites, tweeted the following just before taking off on an overseas trip: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she arrived in Africa, the tweet had “gone viral” and she had lost her job.
  • Also in December, April Todd-Malmlov, the director of MNsure – Minnesota’s state health insurance exchange – resigned after it was disclosed that, during November, when enrollment was at its height and, at the same time, enrollees were having problems with the exchange’s web site, she had been on a two-week vacation in Central America. The ill-timed vacation created an uproar among political allies and opponents alike.
  • Earlier, in August of last year, Tim Armstrong, the handsome, charismatic, young CEO of AOL, alarmed both employees and investors during an all-employee conference call. In the middle of the call, to discuss pending job cuts at the company, listeners were started to hear Armstrong suddenly tell a staff member, “You’re fired!” It was later disclosed that the employee, contrary to Armstrong’s earlier instructions, had persisted in photographing Armstrong, prompting his termination. Still, employees who had dialed in for the call recorded it, and one shared it with media affairs journalist Jim Romanesko, who picked up on the story and caused it, also, to “go viral.” The ensuing uproar only added to the woes at AOL and the pressures on Armstrong.

Tim Armstrong, AOL CEO [Photo: Business Insider]

For the time being, Armstrong has weathered the storm. A concerted effort to restore his reputation has included a lengthy article in Business Insider that chronicled his struggles to restore AOL to profitability and provided context for the employee meeting outburst. In addition, the company’s results have improved.

You’re always “on”

But the Armstrong example illustrates what’s different today in terms of the ramifications of poor judgment. In the past, there may have been times when leaders failed to exercise good judgment, but it wasn’t immediately evident, giving them time to correct the situation. Today, in addition to the traditional media reporting on poor judgment by leaders, those leaders now have to factor in social media. At the AOL meeting, employees had their smart phones on, recording the meeting. As little as five years ago, that never would have happened. Now, employees are emboldened to turn on their smart phones, and the technology makes it so easy to record an event and share it.

Likewise, In Sacco’s case, social media not only made it easy for her to tweet before thinking: it also

Jennifer Sacco [Photo: Huffington Post]

provided an additional trail of evidence reflecting poor judgment. According to Buzzfeed (Dec. 20, 2013), this was not the first time she had posted questionable statements on social media. As early as January 2013, she had tweeted: “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?”

Was this crisis necessary?

Perhaps it’s primarily in such “moments of truth” that leaders can demonstrate sound judgment. As Tuchy and Bennis note, many of history’s most famous – and successful – judgment calls occurred during times of crisis.

But I’m confident most hiring managers would prefer not to take that risk. Instead, they would want to do all they can to help ensure that the manager they’re hiring has the maturity, perspective and common sense to exercise good judgment. Perhaps more importantly, although such spectacular failures in judgment are the cases we remember, there are many more routine, everyday decisions by company and organizational leaders when sound judgment leads to the right decision. These cases go unnoticed, yet are also “moments of truth” when organizations benefit from the judgment of effective leaders and managers.

To help ensure that such judgment calls are sound, routine and correct, hiring managers can benefit from taking more time to evaluate a candidate for a management job, beyond technical knowledge and capabilities – talking with the candidate’s former colleagues, scanning the candidate’s track record, and asking the candidate how he or she would handle certain types of situations.

April Todd-Malmlov [Photo: Politics in Minnesota]

For example, a Minnesota Public Radio report the morning following Todd-Malmlov’s resignation noted that she “possessed an almost savant-like ability to recall facts and figures about some of the most obscure insurance regulations.”

A “savant-like ability to recall facts and figures,” just like a natural charisma or a versatility in social media, might be attractive qualifications for a given job. But hiring managers, while recognizing such talents or qualities, might be well advised to take the added step of giving the candidate the time and opportunity to become more seasoned, learning from more experienced, proven managers. That can help develop a leader who not only has mastered a job’s technical qualifications, but also has earned the confidence of top management to exercise sound judgment.

When the results of a manager’s judgment – or lack of it – can be magnified immediately by new forms of media, that’s more important than ever.

Six keys to insurance and reinsurance thought leadership

Few industries offer as many opportunities for thought leadership – that is, becoming a go-to resource for insights, research and information on key topics and issues – than insurance and reinsurance.

This industry interacts with firms in all other industries. It helps companies respond to sudden and unforeseen challenges. And, insurers and reinsurers must be attuned to trends concerning economics, markets, the climate, society and many other disciplines.

A few large, established firms in this industry have built strong thought leadership reputations. Reinsurer Swiss Re, brokers Marsh, Guy Carpenter and Aon, and other global companies have large research staffs generating regular studies and reports.

It’s not just for Goliath, but for David as well

Is thought leadership in insurance and reinsurance, therefore, the sole purview of such industry giants? Not at all. In fact, it remains an often-overlooked activity of many firms who, whether due to size, precedent or other factors, have not included it in their marketing strategies.

That’s a missed opportunity. In today’s marketplace, customers are turning away from advertising and other traditional marketing. Instead, they’re looking for sources they can trust for guidance and insight on business. They’re looking for thought leaders – and if insurers and reinsurers don’t provide leadership in their industry, prospects will turn to sources who can provide it, whether banks, investment firms, consultants or others.

Although media relations and speaking platforms offer insurers and reinsurers effective thought leadership venues, such firms now can also utilize “content marketing” for their thought leadership, sending it directly to prospects via blogs and white papers and then promoting it via social media so that it appears in all of the right places online.

Six keys to insurance and reinsurance thought leadership

Still doubtful that thought leadership could be a meaningful part of your company’s marketing strategy? Here are six suggestions for approaching an insurance or reinsurance thought leadership program:

Think big – industry-wide, nationally, or even globally. Yes, marketing your company’s latest product or coverage innovation is essential, and it’s important to announce important personnel appointments. Thought leadership, however, requires thinking more broadly. How might the rise of “Big Data” affect your clients and the risks they face? If your clients are in medical liability, what do they need to be learning about health care reform? What are the implications of climate change for the industry? What are the possible impacts on a pandemic for insurers – not only life insurers, but property-casualty as well? The possibilities are endless.

Think outside the industry. Many objective informational resources are available in this industry – the Insurance Information Institute, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the International Underwriting Association, the National Council on Compensation Insurance and others. Outside the industry, however, universities, think tanks, management consultants, government agencies and other entities also produce research and commentary on a universe of subjects, and can be a source of topics for your thought leadership pieces.

Listen to what people are talking about. This is an industry with a variety of events, conferences and regular “meet-ups” where conversations are plentiful and paramount. What current issues are on people’s minds? What topics concern them or what would they like to learn more about? There are many opportunities for such informal “sampling” of insurance and reinsurance executives for their ideas and possible thought leadership topics.

Talk with the marketplace, and measure it. More formal market research is also an important consideration, and can yield industry insights and data. Depending on the purpose and budget, this might involve precise, scientific market research, or other, newer alternatives – for example, a confidential survey via “Survey Monkey,” or quick polling through social media. These newer, less formal research tools can still provide useful snapshots of how executives view current industry issues.

Seek out the hidden experts – even in your own organization. It’s impossible to predict with certainty just where you might find topic experts. A friend of mine once worked for a life insurance company, and while having an informal conversation with a mid-level actuary he learned that the actuary, in addition to his job responsibilities, had been doing independent research  on life expectancies in specific states. That research eventually became the basis for an annual report on the “healthiest states,” which attracted the coverage of ABC’s Nightline, USA Today and many other news outlets.

Think ahead. Ever since the ancient Greeks visited Delphi to get the Oracle’s latest predictions, people have continually asked: what does the future hold? This industry is in the business of anticipating the future and, in a sense, making “bets.” The large amounts of data collected by insurers and reinsurers, and the experts who evaluate it, can help provide forecasts of what will happen in the future, and what the industry needs to prepare for.

A successful insurance and reinsurance thought leadership strategy

Several years ago, I led communications for a reinsurance company – a significant operation, but much smaller than the industry’s global giants. We undertook a marketing program that, because of budget limitations, utilized minimal advertising and other “paid” media but instead emphasized “earned” media coverage through thought leadership.

At the beginning of the program, we didn’t even register with the marketplace in terms of awareness of our brand. But after a couple of years we revisited the benchmark research. Not only did the marketplace, as a result of the program, perceive our company in the way that we had hoped, but also our market awareness had increased dramatically – to a level that vied with that of the industry’s major global brands.

The success was due to thought leadership. With a strategic thought leadership program as part of your company’s marketing mix, you can help position your firm to compete effectively – even with those “global giants.”

Seeking public relations counsel: a brief shopper’s guide

We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, when businesses close out projects and assess their progress for 2013. As attention is turning to plans for 2014, many managers will evaluate their public relations, marketing and communications activities, and consider whether to seek the assistance of an outside firm, or, if the results have not been satisfactory, decide to look for a new agency.

Before becoming an independent consultant, I worked for more than 20 years on the “client side,” in corporations and, early in my career, in government. In a variety of situations, my colleagues and I would interview, evaluate and select public relations firms and counselors. Based on that experience, the following are some important factors to consider in your own deliberations:

(Although these tips are written in the context of evaluating public relations and communications firms – e.g., referring to “they” – the suggestions can also apply to evaluating sole practitioners.)

Are they strategic?

There’s probably no more overused word in business today than “strategic,” yet its true meaning is often overlooked; specifically, the ability to plan acourse of action to achieve a goal or objective. The responsibility of a public relations counsel is to chart a public relations strategy that will, in turn, support an organization’s business strategy.

The communications objectives, for example, might change opinions, increase awareness or establish an organization’s reputation. The key is to have a direction and an ultimate objective – and for that objective to enhance an organization’s overall success.

Too often, however, public relations firms and counselors tout their capabilities, and whether they can utilize the latest in communications tools or innovations. One firm or counselor may showcase their experience in social media; another, in video; or yet another in events that have attracted wide publicity.

A prospective PR firm must have the right capabilities, but it’s important for the client not to become enamored of the “latest shiny thing” in media and communications. Instead the client should ask the firm to demonstrate how it has developed strategies in the past, and applied its capabilities to achieve measurable objectives. If a firm is truly strategic, they’ll be able to answer those questions.

Do they understand your business?

This seems like such a basic requirement for outside counsel, but over the years I’ve been struck by how agencies – whether from public relations, marketing, advertising or other disciplines – don’t always take the time to get to know the business of a prospective client.

Certainly, this requires some perspective: you’re hiring someone for their talents and skills in public relations, not to understand every single aspect of your company or to manage your business overall. Still, I’ve been surprised when people from agencies working with my employer, when offering advice or ideas, demonstrated that they didn’t understand basic aspects of my business.

On the other hand, I can recall pleasant, enlightening – even exciting – experiences during interviews of prospective agencies, when their answers to our questions showed that they had taken the time not only to learn about our company, but to understood key challenges and issues we were facing. It’s in those moments that a prospective agency or counselor shows that it can offer new, helpful insights on how you can succeed in the future.

Do they offer a fresh perspective?

As noted above, along with the understanding of your business, an agency needs to offer fresh perspective on your public relations, marketing or communications programs. In fact, the best counselors can take their knowledge of your company, business and industry and apply it to help your company stand out from its competitors.

Please note: No consultant can bring a fresh perspective to a client’s program if the client is not willing to consider new ideas. In fact, no company or manager should even consider hiring an outside expert if the manager is not open to new perspectives. If you hire a public relations counsel and begin to feel like all you’re doing is giving orders, it might be time to question whether the counsel is really adding value. Likewise, a smart client should expect outside counsel to question old assumptions – diplomatically, to be sure, but to question them nonetheless.

Do they take the initiative?

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to compensating public relations counsel. It may involve payment according to an hourly fee, payment for a specific project or payment of a pre-agreed, monthly retainer.

One case involving compensation structures, however, actually taught me the value of a public relations counsel who takes the initiative. When I was given responsibility for the communications and public relations of a division of my company, I was assigned an agency that had a long-term relationship with the corporation. At first, the agency provided me with great support and counsel. But it experienced management changes, and I was assigned new people.

The compensation was based entirely on hourly fees. I seldom heard from the staff assigned to my account; then, when I called the agency with a simple question, I’d get my answer, but soon afterward get a bill for 15 minutes of counsel. This happened repeatedly – it’s what some might call “nickel and diming.”

I evaluated the relationship, and decided to seek a new agency. The firm we hired convinced me of the value of putting them on a retainer, and once that was signed the agency always took the initiative to contact me with ideas, advice and recommendations. They demonstrated that a valuable public relations counsel will be eager to learn about the client’s business, then “take the first step” to provide assistance and support

What is their reputation – professionally, and ethically?

Getting the answer to this question will involve talking with past clients of the firm, and with other corporate communications executives. When interviewing a firm, the client also can ask if the agency belongs to a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and if employees are required to adhere to the codes of ethical conduct prescribed by those and similar organizations.

A public relations firm’s responsibility is to help manage the reputation of the client. Before hiring a public relations agency, make sure the agency itself has established its own strong reputation, for integrity as well as expertise – among its clients, competitors and others in the marketplace.

What other factors do you consider important in evaluating a public relations firm?